Is the Tea Party's Revolution Serious?
[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The Tea Party's Revolution"]
Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and a journalist whose work appears in the major mainstream media. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are on the list of publications to which she contributes, as is The New Yorker, where she's listed on the masthead as a "staff writer." Her latest book, which was published back in September by Princeton University Press, is called The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History. Unsurprisingly, it reads rather like a long magazine article.
It meanders here and there in a leisurely fashion; it includes tidbits from Lepore's reading in American history and other tidbits from interviews she conducted with members of the contemporary tea-party movement, but it seems never to really reach any particular point. In the end, it doesn't really end; it just stops. She raises some big questions — "What was the Revolution about? What is history for? Who are we?" — but never really answers them.
If there is any overarching argument to The Whites of Their Eyes it would seem to be this: the members of the contemporary tea-party movement believe, according to Lepore, in a version of American history that she dismisses as "a fantasy," an 18th century with
no slavery, poverty, ignorance, insanity, sickness, or misery … only the Founding Fathers with their white wigs, wearing their three-cornered hats, in their Christian nation, revolting against taxes, and defending their right to bear arms.
This outright "fiction," Lepore argues, may, for example, be accused of having "compressed a quarter century of political contest into 'the founding,' as if ideas worked out, over decades of debate and fierce disagreement, were held by everyone, from the start." She quotes an exchange between Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. "Who's your favorite Founder?" Beck asks Palin. "Um, you know, well," she replies. "All of them."
It is not, of course, clear whether Mrs. Palin actually knows the names of any of these Founders Beck was asking her about, as it is not clear whether she knows anything else at all about them either. It is relatively certain, however, that Glenn Beck does know both who the Founders were and at least something about what they said and did. He has claimed, for example, that Thomas Paine, "was the Glenn Beck of the American Revolution," a not entirely implausible interpretation of the facts.
The problem, however, at least as Lepore sees it, is that Beck is a devotee of the tea-party movement's version of American history, which she calls not "just kooky history [but] antihistory." Then she decides that perhaps a better term for it is "historical fundamentalism." And for the rest of the book, that's the term she goes with. "Historical fundamentalism … is to history," she writes, "what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution."
historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — "the founding" — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — "the founding documents" — are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.
As Lepore points out, the Founding Fathers "weren't even called the Founding Fathers until Warren G. Harding coined that phrase in his keynote address at the Republican National Convention in 1916." He used the phrase again a few years later, "during his inauguration in 1921," in an inaugural address written in what H.L. Mencken described as
the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.
It was in that very same speech that Harding attested his "belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers."
Lepore provides inconclusive anecdotal evidence, which I nevertheless find persuasive, that the tea-party movement is mainly just a bunch of disaffected Republicans who really care nothing for small government or individual liberty but merely want to see the GOP back in the White House and back in control of Congress. For example, she cites a 2010 New York Times/CBS News poll as revealing that "63 percent of self-described tea party supporters gain most of their television news from Fox, compared with 23 percent of all adult Americans," and Fox News is, of course, little more than the outsourced publicity arm of the Republican Party.
She also presents such evidence from her own interviews with members of the tea-party movement. She found that
Tea partiers liked to describe their movement as a catchall — Austin Hess identified himself as a libertarian, Christen Varley described herself as a social and fiscal conservative — but it didn't catch everything. Opposition to military power didn't have a place in the twenty-first century tea party. It did, however, have a place in the Revolution.
Moreover, the commitment to individual liberty exhibited by many of those Lepore talked with was rather scant, to say the least. She interviews one tea partier, Christen Varley, who is working "to try to get a ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot." Lepore "asked her whether that didn't amount to more government interference, but the problem, she said, was that the government had interfered so much already that it had nearly destroyed the family, and the only thing for it was to use the government to repair the damage." In other words, "I oppose large, intrusive government, except when I don't." Where could you find a better definition of conservatism?
At another point in her period of interaction with the tea partiers, mostly in Boston, Lepore asked a self-proclaimed libertarian, Austin Hess, "if he was troubled by Christen Varley's work with the Coalition for Marriage and the Family. 'We do not discuss social issues and foreign policy issues,' he said." Later,
I asked Austin Hess whether he was worried Sarah Palin was hijacking the tea party. He shrugged. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," he said. "I don't agree with her about a whole lot of things, but we're not conducting purity tests. We're building coalitions."
Lepore also finds anecdotal evidence of historical ignorance among the contemporary tea partiers. She talks with a Midwesterner named Patrick Humphries, for example, who tells her he "was born in Indiana and grew up in Iowa." Humphries believes, like most of his fellow tea partiers, that the policies of the Obama administration represent a "radical change" — a "government takeover of the economy." But of course Obama's actual policies are merely the policies all presidential administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have pursued for nearly 80 years. They are virtually indistinguishable from the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Much of the tea party talk about the supposed evil of the Obama administration is really just empty rhetorical excess.
And Lepore does have a tendency to take the contemporary tea partiers' somewhat overheated rhetoric a bit too literally. She seems to think, for example, that they really want to return to the 18th century — or, to be more exact, to the way government was conducted back then. And that is something Lepore herself does not want.
She tells the sad story of Peter Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin's nephew, the son of his sister Jane. When Jane's husband, Edward Mecom, died, Lepore writes, he
left his wife with nothing but debts, not least because, long before he died, he had lost his mind. Whatever ailed him, it was heritable. When Jane's son Peter fell prey to the Mecom madness, Benjamin Franklin paid a farmer's wife to take care of him.
The care she provided did not, however, meet Jill Lepore's standards. "Whenever I hear people … talk about getting back to what the founders had," she writes, "a government that won't give money to people who don't work, I think about Peter Franklin Mecom: he was tied up in a barn, like an animal, for the rest of his life." Nor does Mecom's case represent the full extent of Lepore's dissatisfaction with the politics of the late 18th century. "In eighteenth-century America," she writes, "I wouldn't have been able to vote. I wouldn't have been able to own property, either." And her rejection of that prospect is flat and final. She writes, "I don't want to go back to that."
She approvingly quotes Thurgood Marshall's 1987 remark in which he mocked what he called the "complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the 'more perfect union' it is said we now enjoy." Marshall expressed a certain skepticism about "the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers" and noted that "the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights … we hold as fundamental today."
There is merit in this statement — though a historically literate libertarian would remonstrate a bit about Marshall's wording. It's doubtful, for example, that a civil war was actually "required" to get rid of slavery, and not all of those constitutional amendments Marshall seemed to hold in such high regard were "required" either, not if the end you had in view was the protection of individual rights.
The one in 1920 that permitted women to vote was doubtless "required" for that objective to be achieved. But what about the provisions of the Reconstruction Amendments that effectively turned over to a monstrously enlarged federal government all the matters that had previously been concerns of the various states? Did this have the effect of better protecting the individual rights of Americans? The matter is, at the very least, debatable.
The important point, however, is that no tea partiers I know of are asking that the government policies of the late 18th century be adopted anew — that slavery be reinstituted, that women be denied the right to vote and the right to own property. What the tea partiers are asking is rather that our current government be run according to the principles that underlay the American Revolution. But there's the rub. For what are those principles?
The Founding Fathers didn't agree with each other about everything. In fact, the more you read their letters and other writings, the more it seems that they agreed with each other about virtually nothing except the desirability of breaking with England and establishing a new government for what had been 13 separate English colonies. This is presumably why Glenn Beck asked Sarah Palin to name her favorite Founder, and it was her ignorant belief — or so, at least, it seems to me — that the founders all agreed that made her unable to answer his question.
If you think of the American Revolution as most modern libertarians do, as having been a major event in the libertarian tradition, as having been underlain by essentially libertarian ideas, if what at least some tea partiers want is that our current government be run according to libertarian principles — well, then, what they want is a federal government that scarcely exists, a federal government closer to the one that operated under the Articles of Confederation than to any US federal government that has existed since adoption of the Constitution. If, like most tea partiers, however, you're a conservative, then the principles you probably believe underlay the American Revolution were "no taxation without representation," the right to bear arms, and, of course, the doctrine that the United States was to be a "Christian nation."
It is a skewed understanding of the Revolution that permits such a view as this, of course, which is Lepore's point. What today's tea partiers think they know about the American Revolution is partial and selective when it isn't absolute bunkum.
Jill Lepore believes, and I agree with her, that it would be better if the tea partiers got their facts right, so that their understanding of the meaning of the American Revolution was more nuanced and closer to the actual truth.
She is inclined to blame her own profession for the problem. Academic historians stopped writing for the general reader decades ago, she argues, and began turning out highly specialized scholarship that frankly didn't expect any readers other than fellow professors.
She has a point, but I myself am a firm believer in the view that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. The horse has to want a drink. The American electorate has to want the truth about American history. Too many Americans really don't want truth — any truth. What they want is mythology that will confirm their prejudices.
Those of us who communicate with the public about history do have to get out the word about what American history really is. But just doing that won't guarantee a change in public attitudes toward the American Revolution. We still need a thirsty horse.